An Interview with Frank Ticheli

Composer Frank Ticheli’s talents extend far beyond the music he writes; whether he’s teaching composition at the University of Southern California, or guest-conducting on podiums across the country, this versatile musician switches between these many different hats with ease. Ticheli recently returned from a three-month sabbatical in Italy and shared some of his recent and varied activities with from his home in Pasadena, California, where he lives with his wife and children. Beginning literally with his most recent accomplishments, he says, “Three of my pieces came out today- I got my copies in the mail this afternoon- so their publication is official. And we finally got high-speed Internet- it’s been a big day”.

What is your musical background?
I was born in Monroe, Louisiana. My family moved around quite a bit when I was young, before we finally settled in La Place, just outside of New Orleans. I began playing the trumpet in 4th grade but I slowly lost interest and stopped playing in the 7th grade. However, when we moved to Richardson, Texas, I was blown away by the band program there- I had no idea kids my age could play so well, and I wanted to be a part of that. The music programs there really lit the fire in my belly. I owe a great deal to Robert Floyd, the director at Berkner High School, who fueled the fire.

So how did you get into composing?
I first started flirting with the idea in high school- I wrote a piece in my junior year and the jazz band played through it my senior year. It was just awful, but the fact that Floyd took the time to read it was encouraging to me. I was also transcribing charts from Maynard Ferguson and Stan Kenton records during this time. I loved transcribing those pieces, putting the notes down on the page. Then I began to wonder what would happen if I changed some of the notes, put something different on the page. And with that, I began arranging pieces. Variations on America by Charles Ives was a real inspiration to me as well- it sounded somewhat dissonant and crazy, with different music going on at the same time- it was the first piece I heard that made me want to be a composer. It seems only fitting, as Ives is considered to be the “grandfather” of American music.

No one told me that it was unusual to be able to hear, then write out music; it wasn’t until I got to college that this was brought to my attention. In a freshman ear-training class, I found that I could hear things that others couldn’t. The teacher made an example out of me and referred the other students to me for answers and help. I finally had to ask him to stop- he was turning the class against me! I was never an exemplary trumpet player- I was just so-so- but I had these ears.

As a composer, I was a bit of a late bloomer, but I went on to major in music theory/composition and music education at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. I almost got a performance degree, too, because I still wasn’t sure of what I wanted to do. I graduated in December of 1980 and started applying to graduate schools. I planned to spend spring semester studying, brushing up on my orchestration and counterpoint skills, before heading to The University of Michigan in the fall. However, I received a call from a school in Garland, Texas; they had just fired their band director for exposing himself in front of the students, and they needed someone to finish out the year. [Chuckling] So, my first job was replacing a naked guy! I accepted the job reluctantly because I really just wanted to study for grad school, but in retrospect, I’m glad I did it. It was a tough semester, but I learned a lot about what young musicians can do, and that experience still informs me to this day.

I went on to get both masters and doctoral degree in composition from The University of Michigan, where I had the good fortune to study with four different members of the composition faculty. Each exposed me to a different aspect of composition. William Bolcom was a generalist, while Leslie Bassett was wonderful with the details. Going from a lesson with Bolcom to one with Bassett was like switching from large, sweeping brush strokes with a paintbrush to detailed precision work under a magnifying glass; their approaches to composition were quite different. William Albright stressed the beauty of sound and the importance of taking risks, and George Wilson taught me to respect the integrity of the musical line.

I’ll always remember my first lesson with Bolcom- I walked into his studio with what I thought was a respectable week’s worth of work and placed it in front of where he was sitting at the piano. Bolcom played it perfectly the first time through, made a few corrections, and gave me some suggestions to work on for the following week. That having taken all of about two minutes, he turned and asked me what else I had prepared. I was caught empty-handed, so Bolcom graciously talked with me about my aspirations as a composer for the remaining 58 minutes of the lesson. I learned in those first two minutes that, if I was going to call myself a composer, I had better start composing. I would no longer be able to get away with doing the bare minimum- I had to put in the time.

Did you go directly into teaching after completing your doctorate?
I did not manage to land a university job right away. It was very discouraging, after 10 years of college- I had spent all that money and had nothing to show for it. I took a job writing music for an Ann Arbor theater production of Moliere’s Don Juan. I wrote music to accompany character entrances, to enhance dramatic scenes- I worked non-stop for six weeks writing all this solo piano music that was worked into the play, and received a mere $300 for my efforts. After the play closed, I looked through all the piano music, and found thematic material in a couple of 15-second pieces that I thought would work well in a piece for concert band. Fortress and Portrait of a Clown were the results. I had already composed a Concertino for Trombone and Band and a Wind Ensemble piece as a doctoral candidate, but I consider these to be my first true pieces for concert band.

Trinity University in San Antonio finally offered me a tenure-track position (my first) in the fall of 1987, a position that I held for three years. I was invited to apply for a faculty position at the University of Southern California during my second year at Trinity. I was offered the job, but I turned it down at first. The dean at U.S.C. urged me to reconsider and assured me that U.S.C. would keep negotiating. During the weeks that followed, I also received a call from Carl St. Clair, the newly appointed director of the up-and-coming Pacific Symphony, saying that the orchestra needed a composer in residence.

Now, with two separate organizations calling me out to California, I decided that maybe it was meant to be. When the dean called back, we negotiated a deal that made the faculty position more attractive, and I accepted both gigs. I moved to southern California in 1991, and I’ve been here ever since. I wrote five compositions during my residency with the Pacific Symphony, from 1991-1998. The experience of writing music for a professional orchestra forced me to grow up as a composer, because once the music is on their stands it has to be ready to go- they can’t waste rehearsal time fixing errors or making other corrections.

During this time, I was still writing concert band music, because I don’t ever want to compose music for just one medium. That would become really boring and, over time, my music would suffer. I despise the term “band composer”- I believe we are all composers first.

You’ve composed several pieces for experienced and professional musicians. What drew you to composing for young musicians?
Early on in my career I began accepting invitations to go out and guest-conduct public school bands. I found that I loved working with kids, and I decided that I would always compose for professionals and young people alike. I love guest-conducting- I find that it keeps me connected to the people for whom I’m composing. It’s yet another hat I love to be able to wear. I find that conducting informs my composing because standing on the podium in front of an ensemble puts me directly in touch with what a conductor has to deal with every day. It also sheds light on some of the problems composers create for conductors. The main job of a conductor is to get behind the notes to the essence and intention of the composer, and not just to beat time. I now insist that all of my composition students study conducting, and I firmly believe that conductors would benefit by studying some composition as well.

What are some of the challenges of writing for younger players as opposed to more experienced musicians?
The work is just about as hard- if you’re doing it right, it’s no easier to compose for young people than it is for professionals. Although the desk time is usually shorter, because you have fewer notes, it’s no less intense. Young musicians do not yet have the lung capacity and finger dexterity of older players, but still, deserve to play pieces that have dignity and lasting value.

You’ve composed music for a variety of media, but you seem to be best known for your band pieces. Which aspects of this ensemble best lend themselves to your compositional ideas?
I grew up playing in bands and wind ensembles, from fourth grade all the way through grad school. It’s in my blood, my DNA so to speak. Although there are still some real problems within the band institution that have to be overcome, I’m encouraged by the possibilities. There is a sort of youthfulness and energy about it, as well as an excitement about commissioning new music that seems to be lacking in other media. I think my rhythmic language resonates well in the wind medium. There’s a precision in wind articulation that appeals to me. They can be so expressive and beautiful, but also raucous, free-wheeling, jazzy. And most of all, I am attracted to the rich variety of colors that a large group of wind instruments can offer.

Many of your pieces seem to be based on a specific person, image, feeling, or event. How do you develop your compositional ideas?
Some pieces may be connected to a certain person or event, and when I sit down in front of a blank page, that event is definitely in the back of my mind. But the greatest inspiration for me comes simply from doing the work, putting in the time, sweating it out, connecting one note to the next. Hard work inspires more work. I’ve come to realize that students who come in with excuses about why their pieces are not progressing well are simply denying the fact that they haven’t put in the necessary time.

Your most recent pieces seem to be geared toward younger players. Is this a deliberate shift, or is it just happenstance?
Joy, Joy Revisited, and Abracadabra came about immediately after I finished my 2nd Symphony in 2004- I needed to clean the palate and write some pieces of a more modest scale. I wanted to create more music for young, pre-high school students, although these pieces are also suitable for high school bands.

Both Joy and Joy Revisited are based on the same tune, one that haunted me on the day of my daughter’s birth nearly eight years ago- the excitement and energy of that day were accompanied by a tune that wouldn’t let go of me, wouldn’t leave me alone until I finally jotted it down. After I put it on paper, I just put it away. I stumbled upon it 7 years later, rediscovered it in a way, and thought that it might make a nice melody for a concert band piece. As I was writing this piece, some passages I composed were more difficult than I wanted them to be, but instead of throwing out difficult stuff, I saved it, set it aside. Before long, I realized that I was writing two versions of the same piece and I just went with it. Joy is a grade-2 piece, while Joy Revisited is grade 3.5-4. It was an interesting experiment: the creation of un-identical twins, one simple, the other more elaborate, but both coming from the same exact material. Perhaps it might serve as a worthy study for young composers.

Abracadabra was commissioned by the Driscoll Middle School Band in San Antonio, but is dedicated to my son. It’s written in the dark key of g minor and has a sort of spooky, Halloween-ish sound to it. It has a shifty, mysterious quality with sudden mood changes and abrupt modulations. It’s a lot of fun. I worked on Abracadabra, as well as the other two pieces, at the Mac Dowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. I was able to complete all three pieces during my time there.

Do you currently have any other pieces in the works?
The University of Michigan Symphony Band will premiere my newest piece, Sanctuary, in October. I was first approached by the Michigan School Band and Orchestra Association to write a piece in honor of H. Robert Reynolds, who had recommended me to the organization himself. It was meant to be for his retirement (which was nearly four years ago). I knew I couldn’t complete the piece by that time so I suggested they find someone else do it, but Reynolds told them he would rather wait for me. In Sanctuary, a simple melodic line is accompanied by a profoundly beautiful harmonic structure. I really don’t know how one finds the right harmony for a piece. We just get lucky now and then. I definitely think that’s what happened here. The peaceful beginning gives way to a passionate climax in the middle. Then it folds up again, ending as it began.

I haven’t heard the piece yet, although I have a pretty good idea of how it will sound. There are always some small and surprising differences between real and imagined sound, which is why I try to hear the piece played before it’s published. I’m usually able to have the U.S.C. Thornton Wind Ensemble read through my new compositions, but until I hear it, I worry a lot. I usually err in the balance of lines here and there; a climax may be more glorious than imagined, or a line may not come through as well as hoped. Then I go back through and adjust dynamics before the piece is published. Reynolds was a horn player in a former life, so there’s a huge horn part in this piece. I can’t help but wonder- will the horn writing be as convincing as I imagined? Will it be as massive?

It’s such a mystery, the process of composing, which is part of its appeal. The brain and the heart must constantly keep each other in check. I don’t know how I compose. I’ll probably go to my grave without ever fully understanding it, and that’s fine by me.

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